by Gerald Monsman
At “Big Dutch,” Eastern Cape Province. The Present.
KRUGER AND JOUBERT raised the alarm with paroxysms of barking. I thumbed back the hammer, tightened my finger on the trigger, and prayed to any appropriate deity that the powder in the cartridge had kept its kick these last thirty years. For sheer horror, nothing can match the smoldering craziness behind the glassy eyes of a Cape cobra. The snake hung in the noon sun in a thorn tree barely fifty yards from the house where the yellow weaverbirds nest, the light in its hypnotic, unblinking eyes coming and going. As sweat stung my vision, I steadied the front sight of the flamboyant silver-plated Colt on those copper-red pools of fire blazing at me. The blast stunned my eardrums, tore at my wrists, arms, and neck. The snake, airborne, slammed backwards, pink bits flying out. As the dogs circled, I caught a whiff of “Colt ozone,” black-powder smoke–thick, hard, and masculine–that conjured up a forgotten Sunday morning a half-century ago.
The Dominie had taken as his Gospel reading a verse from the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” My young mind, drifting like a moat in the fingered sunlight squeezing through the chapel window’s green text on gold—Looft den Heer O Mijn Ziel—envisioned “Peacemakers” after the image of Colonel Colt’s single action army revolvers: six-shot cylinders chambered for .45 caliber centerfire cartridges, 235-grain lead bullets each backed by twenty-eight or forty grains (“military” or “big game” loads) of black power. In America, George Armstrong Custer died fighting Black Kettle’s and Sitting Bull’s three thousand Sioux at the Little Big Horn with just such a Peacemaker in his hand. Frontiers or empires being so flush with confidence, less than three years later Lord Chelmsford’s invasion of Zululand ended the same way. When I was growing up in the Eastern Cape’s Frontier Country, it was precisely this revolver–bright silvered finish, 7 ½ inch barrel, one piece oiled walnut grips–that was carried every day by my uncle Julius Birrell, except for those days when he sat in church.
Historians note that Colt’s single action armies, later chambered in 44-40 and other calibers, were from the very first shrewdly labeled on the barrel almost like a child’s toy, “Colt Frontier Six-Shooter.” Experts never quite say why the appellation “Peacemaker” remained only a popular, colloquial name for that righteous old iron, but those of us who sat in clapboard chapels within even the most distance reach of imperial conquest knew that the noun “Peacemaker,” though it appears only once in the King James Version, was the name sanctified by Holy Writ for Colt’s SAAs. Frontiersmen weren’t big on meekness, and peace was made by reliance on 235 grams of lead and forty grains of black power. Via the offices of Colt’s revolving makers of peace, real men laid out the meek like snot on the ground.
Originally, Julius’s Peacemaker had belonged to an old-timer in our area. He was, Julius said, “a man with the bark on him.” This arboreal definition of the putative gunslinger I connected through some boyish quirk with the Kroontjie apple tree that in those years branched way out over our old stable–aromatic petals bursting from dark wood in blossom time, juicy tart apples for the winter. Summers I often lay on the stable roof, almost in its limbs, a fine place to daydream or to watch the night as a star fell here and there like a burning moth from the sky. The time would come, I vowed, when I too would make my mark speed-shooting from the draw and contaminate the enemy (“intimidate” was a vastly less satisfying word–so I pretended youthful ignorance). For many years now, Julius’s silver gun had hung mutely on my study wall–until today when I shot the cobra. And standing there, gun in hand, memories of a half-forgotten scene in the stable under the tree also flooded back. I suddenly realized how that event has haunted my mind like a half-obliterated dream, its real meaning lost irretrievably but still lurking somehow, making its presence felt at all times.
One day at lunch, a few years before Uncle Julius’s horses had rattled away from our farm in his trailer, our aged hired hand, Cob (i.e., Jacobus), had climbed up on the stable roof with me. He had just begun telling how he’d dug the foundation into the slope with a mule and drag-pan fifty years before when a sudden voice came up from below the screen of leaves.
“Cobus! That stable positively has to have a new roof. Can’t have it leaking any longer on my horses. And those two broken windows need to be replaced. Soon, d’y hear?”
The voice was Uncle Julius’s. I had only to hear him and I could perfectly picture him standing below, ninety percent Frontier Territory and ten percent barbed wire: a straight, long-limbed cattleman in the late prime of life, saddle-cheeked, with icy blue eyes beneath a great drift of snowy white hair. Julius (who always insisted everyone call him by his first name because, he said, all men were created equal) had been a tradition in our lives since before my time.
Because Julius never really waited for an answer, Cob replied to the disembodied voice barely loud enough for me to hear, “Course there’s leaks and broken windows. I been waitin’ to tear this here stable down since just about the day old Kraft died. . . . Only your pa won’t hear of it,” he added just to me. His fingers, bent like old nails, picked for a moment at a plank where it had curled and split.
Naturally, curious kid that I was, I wanted to know why Cob was waiting to tear it down, but all I could make out was the he wanted to pull out all the nails and “start over.” I conjured up all sorts of melodramatic reasons why Cob might want to start over with those nails, especially because the stable, taken all in all, seemed good enough with a bit of patching. Neither Father nor Julius would have wanted those nails, crooked, rusty, not worth in toto a day’s effort. And that would have been about the only thing Father and Julius ever could have agreed upon.
Sometimes Cob would sit bent under his memories, seemingly thinking of those hidden nails, his face a maze of wrinkles like a shriveled apple. But mostly in those years he just helped father with Julius’s horses and with the bees, pigs, and mielies in the near fields–all thanks to a gas motor, a pump, moveable pipes and a Fish River tributary). Also with grape vines by the house and fruit trees by the road.
Cob knew how to make things grow, which was lucky for Father. On Sundays Pa looked like a successful Eastern professor of divinity, what with his goatee and all. He kept his dignity the rest of the week too, but things never quite worked out as smoothly then as they did on Sundays. Before he took over Piet Kraft’s Big Dutch, father had brought his bride to a farm over toward Maritzburg he’d rented one icy Tuesday during a rare fall of snow. The farmer who let him Cold Tuesday simply stuck his hand down through the drifted snow in the shade of a slope to show father the magnificent black earth. “Ain’t no better dirt in the whole of Natal!” he opined. Only he’d reached down next to a rotted stump and when the snow melted a few days later this best dirt in the country turned out to be so overgrazed (sheepburnt) and rocky it wouldn’t sprout unknown peas.
Even on the best of land father would have had hard going. So when he moved a year later to the Kraft farm, he found that Cob the Khosa (I never thought of the appositional as any thing other than his surname) had stayed on at Big Dutch as if the old fellow intuitively understood there should be at least one person who know what to do with the good grazing land now that we had it. When he wasn’t dreaming, Cob liked his chores: “Sun an’ cold, I listen to the silence. Allamagtag, I think sometimes I kin hear the sounds of the seeds sproutin’ or a bird’s heart beatin’.”
I call Big Dutch “the place where I was born” though technically my premature birth occurred neither at the homestead nor in the clinic but somewhere out in no man’s land on the back seat of my father’s speeding 1931 Model A Tudor. According to that noted personality, my aunt, who had come from Grahamstown to help out, my mother had felt meaningless Braxton Hicks until that rare freezing Saturday night when, for a late snack, they had all finished off a large (unpitted) cherry pie.
Somewhat later my aquatic environment ruptured–during, and as the direct result of the act of coition (this, again, according to my aunt who would, and did, tell everybody, even my older siblings, everything). In consequence of the burst waters, mother seems to have bypassed early labor and begun directly with the hot flashes, leg cramps, trembling and chills, not to mention contractions of ninety paralyzing seconds’ duration. My aunt who was going to be the midwife suddenly announced that my breech position (turned out it was nothing of the sort) had changed plans. My father, who had carefully laid out his Sunday attire before saying his bedside prayers and mounting my mother, frantically dressed himself in spectacles, suit, vest, tie, watch fob, and hat, but unaccountably found himself still in his stocking feet as he was doing fifty-five (top speed for the Ford’s thirty-two horses on Andrew Bain’s hundred-year-old roadway).
My actual birth–and this I give on the authority of my mother herself–occurred unnoticed either by my father, who had just discovered how cold his toes were on the drafty floorboards, or by my aunt who rode in front and was explaining to my father in some detail the nature and role of uterine contractions, the action and side effects of anesthetics, and the mechanics of forceps extraction. In the event, no anesthetics or forceps were utilized. My mother tried to direct Aunt Silena’s attention to my awkward arrival but was so paralyzed by her overlapping contractions that she couldn’t articulate the necessary words. It was my crying that interrupted Silena long enough for her to take in my birth and shriek, “His head looks like an ice cream cone!” (She meant the conical part of an ice cream cone if held upside down; i.e., pointed). Only after the physician at the clinic had assured Father that time would mold my precipitately squeezed skull to more human proportions did Aunt Selina recover her composure. Clearly the doctor was right because my wife and daughters, not to mention the world at large, seem to find my head in every way unexceptionably ovoid (though I admit that to this day the center creases in my palmiets stubbornly align over my right eye).
So my place of birth is Grahamstown only by a pious fiction. The past has been rewritten, tidied up like Father who, on that Sunday, could have passed for a goateed world-authority in Aramaic. My aunt maintained that his dignity was so great that absolutely no one at the hospital noticed his missing shoes. Much the same glossing over of reality attended the more official aspects of my parturition. Frighteningly conical and unobserved, I appeared in the official records with an artificially created place, time, and attending physician for my birth: the attending whose signature adorns my birth certificate actually had spent the moments of my automotive nativity losing at gin rummy in the doctors’ lounge; my Aunt, as I said, had been preoccupied with educating my father; my father, as noted, had just discovered how cold his toes were; and my mother, naturally, doesn’t remember much of anything at all except the jiggling back of my father’s hat. The hospital even sent Father a bill for the delivery.
Big Dutch, where I grew up, had been bought on the strength of one of Aunt Selina’s generous inspirations. “You could graze Julius’s horses,” she’d suggested to Father. She was mother’s half sister and Julius’s first wife. Maybe more of my inherited world was spectacle and theater than any of us realized. It was Aunt Selina who had inspired Julius to turn his cattle business–what an environmental friend calls “ugly, clumsy, bawling, fly-covered, shit-smeared, brutes”–into a slick imitation of an American gun-and-saddle Wild West Show: The Julius DeKrijger, a better gold mine than the hard-rock holes still being dug by eccentric pick and shovel types. Julius sent his worn blued-finish Peacemaker to be replated in silver and engraved with a scene that showed the gun being used against charging Zulus? Rooi rokke? Apaches? (very deluxe work, with inlays and lots of curlicues). Aunt Selina died not long after, “Burned herself out,” mother said, and Julius for two or three years was a widower. But the Wild West Show with its split-the-bullet-on-the-axe-blade shooting, its waxwork horrors and pantomimes (I heard he had a Zulu do a Dying Gaul impersonation), and the horse races, grew to gigantic proportions. Father said the show was notorious for illegal betting on the horse races.
After his second marriage to the spinster Josephine Ice (originally Uys, Anglicized), who taught schoolgirls piano and ran “Josephine’s School of Charm,” Julius continued to come at least once a year to inspect us. “Doesn’t Julius grow handsomer with age?” mother commented approvingly. Father said his new wife’s money had something to do with it. Julius was very thorough with us and not in the least squeamish about where he stepped or what places he poked into. Father complained, “You’d think he owned more than just a second mortgage on the place,” but mother said it was only his way of visiting. He’d always been like that. He hated to waste time. On one occasion he told me that “loitering slow the future creepeth, arrow-swift the present sweepeth, and motionless forever stands the past.” I thought those were the grandest words I had ever heard, but when I quoted them to Father, he didn’t seem to think much of them.
Cob, who’d been helping Father and me bundle the wheat with a Harvester, spoke up, “The past, it don’t never stop swallowin’ up the future, unless like that old stable over there you can pull it apart an’ start over!”
“The stable will stand,” Father decreed.
“Ja, tot volgende jaar,” Cob replied, poking a bound up sheave, then moving off arthritically toward the old structure.
Julius usually came on the last Saturday in October because his show closed for the season. When he crossed the yard from the barn to the pig pen, the pig pen to the hen house, or the hen house to the stable, I generally trailed. Meanwhile mother waited nervously in the kitchen, more or less ready to give Julius the annual family report he always demanded. When he ended his tour at the stable, he would turn around and look at the fruit trees and say they were full of scale and our Orange Pippins shouldn’t have been planted where they were. We could hardly, Father claimed, be expected to take full responsibility for that tree which had been Kraft’s idea many years before. A fact like that never seemed to deter Julius. He thought it simply slipshod.
Julius detested all unpruned trees, and the Kroontjie apple tree grew so luxuriously I could swing up on one of its long heavy branches and disappear into a screen of leaves. Lying on the stable roof I’d imagine the tree was trying to whisper the secrets of slip-shooting, but then its long arms would twitch as if alerted by the frantic business of crimson and green honeyeaters, a beetle’s tick-tick, butterflies hovering on the rafters of the sun or, more likely, by Julius underneath, winding up his remarks informing me that our stable needed a new roof and windows.
In its prime it had been a great stable, what with four box stalls and a tack room below and several more stalls and a hay mow above. Because of the slope, I could walk in at the south side, fork the hay down through the trap door, jump through, and then walk straight out the north door, again on ground level. Not until the springy floorboards were torn off did I see all those beams with the wood shriveled and cracked across the grain and half held up by the stout square framing nails alone.
Mother did not particularly resent having to make an accounting to Julius, but it worried her terribly to have him so precisely ferreting out the little harmless details she wanted least to tell. He’d say, “Come now, Victoria, the fact you omitted was . . .” and turning to me he’d add in the same breath that “amazement on our mother sits!” When Julius was finished, his face would pucker up in perpendicular, leathery folds and I’d guess he was smiling. I’d know we were all right, for a while at least, and mother would smile, feeling her slate was clean for another year.
Only once did mother speak sharply to Julius. She was giving her annual report and Julius was urging her to “call back yesterday, bid time return.” It had to do with the old agreement about the horses and father’s refusal to make any repairs on the stable. Julius wanted to know when he could expect the new roof put on. Mother flustered and said, “I don’t think, I really don’t believe a new roof is going to be put on–not unless you pay for it, Julius.” This was about the worst thing she could have said because Julius despised people who said they didn’t think. He gave her that frozen stare I never liked and announced that he would erect his own stables in Grahamstown where he could personally supervise his animals. She bit right back with “Well and good!” Father wasn’t there and Mother never told him.
I was glad Mother didn’t speak more often in that tone to Julius, for I was developing an intense desire to visit his show, and I decided to ask Julius to take me to a performance. It was no easy matter to get him to talk to you if you happened to be a child. Most often he just said whatever he felt like saying without any relevance to the context. I found it easier to speak to him when he wasn’t looking at me, and I was just about to ask about the show when his appraising eye fell on me:
“Jesus touched your heart?”
“Guess I don’t know. . . .”
“Limited Atonement. Means you’re either saved or damned.”
“You been touched by Jesus?” I inquired.
“Yep. If you haven’t you’re already damned from all eternity to hell fire.”
“What should I do to get saved?”
Before I could say anything more, he said to mother, “You ought to teach that child not to stare, Victoria. It’s a family trait. Selina used to stare like that.” Mother promised she’d make me stop staring immediately. It wasn’t until Julius’s next visit that I spoke to him about the show. He laughed aloud with a kind of neighing sound. It almost frightened mother. I thought surely he would take me to the fair because it was the only time I’d got him to laugh so he enjoyed it, but he just changed the subject.
Father had transformed the Kraft homestead into a produce farm and equestrian range, which was none too prosperous even in good times. Our farmhouse with thick lime-washed walls had been built years before by one Piet Kraft, owner of a now-defunct silver mine and husband of a reputedly titled Spanish lady (formerly appearing in a chorus line in Jo’berg). There were, in the end, five of us children all told; but I was so much the youngest I had nearly all to myself twelve rooms to grow up in, thirty-three windows (if you count the ancient loopholes) to look out of, and high rolling hills of the Stormberg karoo to explore with aloe, thorn, boulders and a stream. As you drove through this once-frontier you occasionally used to see the lean-to roofs of highveld houses down long lanes, each with its wind-pump. The rickety homesteads, nearly hid by the tall grasses in every shade of green, seemed dwarfed by the blue unfathomable sky.
Julius once remarked that our house was built by “rough minds full of native taste.” I was sure of it too. But I think one reason why I agreed with him was because Pieter and his Spanish noblewoman had allowed yellowwoods, white pear, wild almonds, and Cape beech to remain around the place. Now their great fingers touch. As a child, I was certain that the trees were meant to shield our house from the hunters and drivers who sometimes paused to help themselves to our apples and peaches. I imagined I could hear them saying, “Did you see that old place back there toward the canyon? That house as big as a national monument? Who’d live in that?”
Truly, I wasn’t asked. Children are apportioned out to houses like that. I was lucky to have the Horatio Hornblower and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon on the radio two nights as well as only a thirty-minute walk to the highway to catch a bus to school. Father was anxious to have me educated eventually at the University, but being the kind to put his trust in Providence he somehow believed that Julius would plan it all and see to it. But as my brothers had already discovered, Julius’s belief in self-help and the rugged life (for us) was much too profound to allow him to do anything but put terrific pressure upon us to educate ourselves.
Father generally was not at hand on the day of the “great visitation,” as he called it. He and Cob usually managed to be doing some fall fencing or belated wood cutting on the back fields or up in the canyon. Even if the day happened to be damp or chilly, he’d insist upon having me bring them their lunch and they’d stay until I rang the windmill bell for him. When Julius’s car drove up the lane, mother would go out to greet him and make the usual unconvincing excuses for Father. Julius would explain why his wife hadn’t been able to come, and each would pretend to believe the other. Julius never took anything like that to heart. He believed you shouldn’t “feed fat the ancient grudges” by thinking about them.
Julius also believed in Father’s “noble joys of labor” out there in the back fields. One time when mother made an excuse for Father, Julius said he quite understood. “Labor,” he added, “is necessary, labor is holy, labor is prayer.” I had never thought of work quite that way and was quick to tell Father when he came home. In fact, I’d cranked the bell to the rhythm of the words. But it only made Father behind his thick glasses obscurely belletristic. “Prayer! Look you here, Scout, the labors of Julius serve only the idols of his theater. He’d do better if he sought the crown of wild olive!”
I believe if someone had called me to account in those days I would have confessed that I respected Father more than anyone, but that Julius’s words made better sense and his ways were more important. I liked his frosty-grey suits, soft dull-luster shoes, sleek felt hats, and, when the wind turned up the corner of his jacket, his silver Peacemaker in the snug hand-tooled leather holster. It seemed to me we were always meandering, never knowing what we were going to do next, but Julius knew exactly what he was heading for and what life had to offer him and us.
And so when Julius’s stable had been completed outside of Fort Beaufort, he sent two large trucks around one afternoon in late spring to collect his horses. I suppose because a broken down broodmare was useless to Julius, his men had instructions to leave Ripple. I arrived just as father was insisting that the men take all the horses.
“You take every one or you don’t take any!” he ordered.
But since all the others were already loaded on the trucks, the men just drove off and left Rip and Father standing there. After that Father refused to have anything to do with Rip. She was Julius’s problem, he insisted. He threatened to get a lawyer and sue Julius for the feed, but mother shamed him out of it by warning him everyone would believe the preacher’s story about the two holy hermits dividing gold–neither would take any–referred to him and Julius.
Because no one wanted her, Rip was left in the stable that had become the pigs’ new home. I fed the pigs since I was supposed to help Cob; and he, because he remembered how she’d been once, took care of Ripple. But in June, Cob discovered Julius’s prize white stallion had left Rip heavy. He fingered her lower lip, spread her eyelids wide past the hidden veins, and gently felt of her leathery back teats. “No question ’bout it. Come September an’ her stomach’ll be swollen out to here.” His hand described an ample arc. “An’ by winter it’ll be way out to here.”
There was an undercurrent of pride in his voice. I always distrusted getting emotionally involved with animals, even if they belonged to you, which Rip didn’t. So when Cob said she would have another foal, old as she was, I didn’t particularly catch fire with excitement. Of course, Rip once had had some really beautiful colts, that’s why she’d been the best broodmare. Father claimed, however, horses aren’t all that intelligent. He said you could train them to do a lot, but pigs are really the most intelligent of animals. Yet somehow I didn’t feel like putting my emotions on the pigs either.
We knew Father and Julius would begin a new feud–this time each claiming the foal–if they discovered Rip’s condition. So Cob and I decided to keep quiet about it until she threw her colt. Or at least for as long as we could, which didn’t seem difficult since neither Father nor Julius could have had any suspicion, having long ago given up on the old mare.
That summer Cob began sitting on the top bar of the kraal looking dreamily at Rip as she ate her oats. His mind had started going off and on like a short-circuiting light. Smart ideas and crazy ideas came and went like sunshine and lightning. “You ain’t neva’ goin’ to get old,” he’d mutter to the horse. “Goin’ to show ’em all you never get old.” Cob generally had to be shouted for when Father needed another hand, and he really caught some pretty sharp scoldings that summer, especially after Father squeezed out a third cutting of hay and Cob let it lay for a week and a half until a storm hit.
“What ever have you been about, man? If you don’t practice greater diligence your slackness will bring these fields to ruin!” Cob weighed this advice with great seriousness, then in a rambling, ghostly voice began explaining that third cuttings would ruin the land faster than rain would ruin the cut lucerne, but he lost his connection. “Besides,” he broke off, “I’ve been waitin’ for the beauty, come this spring, all my life.” Father just stared at Cob for a moment as if he thought him deranged and then walked off.
That October, Julius was surprised to see the stable roof still sagging and the windows still broken. With a wave of the hand to indicate, he asked when the “paternal parent” intended to dispose of “that aesthetic eyesore, formerly a stable.” I let slip something about how Rip needed a place to stay until after she’d thrown her foal and weaned it. Before I realized what I’d let out, Julius’s appraising eye fell on me. It always gave me the feeling I was being added or subtracted. After a moment, without making a comment, he turned abruptly and stalked off into the stable where Cob was watering Rip.
I lost my grip on the tree limb when Julius’s Peacemaker discharged with a barely muffled concussion. Shouting and plunging toward the door, because I knew this was no rodent or jackal, I collided with Julius striding out. “And that puts that problem to rest,” he observed coolly. For a few seconds he stared down at me with his wintry blue eyes, his left hand calmly flicking bits of straw from his jacket and his right wagging his gleaming Peacemaker in the bright sun to clear the smoke before holstering it. Julius never used smokeless loads, not even fulminate–only the real black power loads that were kindest to his gun. A reload shop in Fort Beaufort made them up at 22 powder/200 lead for use in the show and at 40/235 for Julius’s personal silver six-gun.
As Julius swung off in his car, its tires spurting gravel back at the stable like a dementedly slip-shooting outlaw, I scrambled to my feet. “Cob!” I cried in panic, throwing myself through the trap door into the dim animal light below. Sprawling at the bottom, I saw his shadowy figure standing by the watering trough. The dark bulk of Rip lay at his feet, her nose just covering the toe of his boot.
At first, Father never suspected there had been a foal to rouse Julius’s envy. He simply insisted that since Julius shot his own horse, Julius had the obligation to bury it. He actually went to see an attorney to force Julius legally to bury Rip. The law-agent didn’t feel the case was worth his time and told father it would be simpler to bury the carcass himself. But for Father it was a matter of principle and he decreed that no one except Julius was to touch the dead mare. So Rip, not exactly Resting In Peace, more like Rotting, just lay there, bloated and corrupt. Because I couldn’t stand to be inside the stable for long, I fed the pigs only every other day, hastily.
A few weeks later when the Pippins were ripening, after the public bus dropped me off and I’d walked the lane, I saw Cob busy on the stable roof. “Hey, Cob,” I greeted him as I swung down from a branch onto the roof, “finally nailing the loose tin back?” The planks below the ridgepole were ready for the corrugated sheeting on the ground.
By way of reply he fumbled in his pocket and found a single rusty nail. It was one of those old-style square nails, bent a little. “Een,” was all he said. It lay like a scar on the palm of his hand, flat and slightly bent. He searched again in his pocket.
“Twee.” He laid it down beside the first nail.
“Drie.” This one was a longer nail, almost straight and hardly corroded. Only a few small scratches showed where the claw of the hammer had pulled at it.
“You’re pulling the nails out? Really? Did Father finally let you start tearing the stable down?”
Without reply he fell to work again, digging with laborious patience for the head of a nail driven through the plank into the timbered frame. I watched in silence as he struggled to get a bite on it, first with the claw hammer, then with the nail puller. It came half way out and began to crack at the bend. He dug in the wood again with his knife, freeing up the point.
“What on earth do you have to do that for?” I put my fingers in the gap between the boards and grabbed the leading edge of the plank, about to tear it up with my hands.
“No. That ain’t right. They all comes out orderly.” The weathered yellowwood split easily as his knife dug deeper around the tip. “There’s still some good in these nails. N paar goeie.”
“But you can’t use these nails. Stable nails, old square ones, not even straight!”
“No, there’s still some good lef’ in ’em.” The nail came free. “I hit this in, fifty year ago,” he explained, testing the resty end against his palm. “I was young fifty year ago.” He looked at the three lying there beside him and added softly, “They’re all my memories, each one.”
I swung down from the tree and ran to the house. Nobody there seemed surprised to hear that Cob was finally tearing down the shed. “But he’s pulling the nails out one by one! And saving them!”
Mother warned me severely not to trouble Father. “He’s had a bad day.” And so I barely risked a glance at Father when at suppertime a truck came and dumped a huge load of dirt in the stable where Rip was lying and hauled off from their doomed shelter every one of our pigs. I must have guessed something even then of why father changed his mind so suddenly about tearing down the stable, but it remained an inkling buried deep down.
No one expected Cob to continue saving every nail, but in the next two months he stubbornly persisted, collecting them in a burlap bag that he carried where he went. Day after day he stripped the stable of its weather-darkened lumber. First the tin sheets and roof planking, then the siding, leaving the upper level an out-sized skeleton of bare rafters, tie-beams and studs. Time seemed to come full circle, the old stable in its last days finding again its first form or, rather, moving back and back toward some mysterious beginning outstripping the simple wood and nails of its actual construction. Even in howling wind that poor, crazy old cowboy kept working. Through it all his nail cache grew steadily larger.
When Cob began throwing down the boards of the springy upper floor, he found the joists covered with webs of a hidden fungus. Those papery whitish-yellow fans bred within the bones of that stable a rottenness no weather would have caused. Yet some of the yellowwood under-timbers had stubbornly resisted this creeping decay, and drawing the nails from them exhausted all his strength. Sometimes the brief crescendo of those large spikes pulled from the solid heart of the beams could be heard as far as the house, beginning with a grating moan and mounting to a living shriek. Other nails simply wouldn’t come out that way. He’d have to wrestle to get a bite on the head with the claws of the extractor, pull it an inch with all his strength, then hammer it from side to side to loosen it in the hole, then yank back on the nail puller again in desperate jerks. He skinned his knuckles, gashed his hands with splinters, but at the end of each day his bag of nails had grown by ounces and inches.
Father didn’t try to hurry Cob in the slightest. He seemed satisfied as long as progress was being made, and so by winter the stable had been reduced to a neatly stacked pile of old lumber and a sixty-pound bag of used nails. Then all spring Cob worked on those nails, straightening, cleaning, polishing. He did what work Father asked him to do, but afterwards he immediately went back to his sack and began on another nail. Father didn’t mean to be funny when he told Cob his polishing was “pointless,” but that about summed it up.
As a suitable for faithful school attendance, Julius announced he would treat us to an actual performance of his show out Ajo way. He hadn’t taken the incident over Rip too much to heart; and since I’d laid it down as a rule not to get emotionally involved with animals, I didn’t think I should either. So when I was twelve years old and graduated from the district school, he came one gloriously hot Saturday in December to fulfill his pledge in person. It was the first time I’d had a chance to see the show I had heard about since I was an infant. Julius came in a deluxe dark red coupe with a rumble seat which, he said, could “eat the miles.” I was too impressed with the car to talk.
Julius drove fast because he didn’t like to waste time just driving. I squeezed in between Mother and Julius, and because he was needed for the horses, Cob and his nails sat in the folding seat. Mother was anxious to please Julius, but I think she was overcome by fear because Julius told her almost before we started that he was “a Jehu of a driver.” He laughed aloud at this, with his kind of neighing sound and explained to mother that, personally, he’d never die from a miscalculated move because his skull showed an extraordinary development in the region of self-preservation somewhere over the ears. He felt of her skull with his left hand while steering which his right. He said she showed no protuberances where she should have and therefore had no sense of self-preservation whatever. I was sure Julius was right, but mother gave a little scream just then because we were swerving into the bush. Julius said something about the “feeble fancies of fear” and went right on instructing mother in phrenology until we bottomed-out on a large wash-out and snapped something under the car. The coupe slewed crazily onto the shoulder, coming to a lopsided stop. Silence all around. Then we learned from Julius that the extra weight of Cob’s “pregnant bag of rust” was responsible for a broken tie-rod-coupler-something.
Julius promptly got out, stepped to the back seat, silently lifted out Cob’s sack of nails with one arm, and firmly marched us back to the disastrous gully. Dropping the nails, bag and all, into the hole, he ordered Cob, “And plenty of stones on top of that!”
Cob began mechanically tossing loose stones into the hole. He seemed hardly to realize his nails were gone. Then, Julius turned to me, “Scout, you get along down the road. There’s a homestead off it a quarter mile past that far bend.” I had no problem with the quarter mile bend, but I dawdled a moment because beyond that far bend between me and the farm there were at least two slote thick with scorching sand and boulders.
“Really Julius,” intervened mother, “Cob worked hard straightening those nails.”
“What could he possibly want to use them for anyway? Julius asked as if Cob were not even present.
“He plans to build again,” I spoke up, giving my private speculation as a fact. “They were his nails in the first place.”
Julius seemed momentarily taken aback, then he brightened. “Next visit,” he promised Cob, “you’ll get a full hundred weight of new tenpennies, gratis. Now go with the boy here to lead the way. Tell them to bring a truck with a lifting jack and a chain.”
Cob obeyed as always, silently plodding down the road as if all along he’d expected to have the nails taken from him. His face, parched in alkali dust, looked like a sun-burnt board. After walking a time, it occurred to me to ask why Father so abruptly changed his mind about allowing him to tear down the stable.
“You Pa, he wanted it tore down.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “I guess so. But he didn’t all of a sudden have the stable torn down just to let you get those nails, did he?”
“Bass Julius, he shot Ripple ’cause of the quarrel with you Pa.”
“I know. But why didn’t Father let the stable stand so we’d have a place to keep the pigs?”
“’Cause the horse was lying there on the inside.”
I already knew where the horse was, so I persisted, “Did Father let you tear it down because Julius was always insisting it had to be fixed up?” I doubted this, but then it was the only explanation that had ever plausibly presented itself.
Cob’s eyes glazed over as he stared out upon the past. “Your Pa told me to do it. He looked like he saw the face of the diabolic angel itself.”
“Why your Pa. He was comin’ in from the field for his lunch when I guess he thought maybe he heard . . . maybe it was somethin’.”
“Was what, Cob?”
“Pigs, I ’spose.”
“Pigs! Why should Father be so horrified with some grunting pigs?”
Getting the parts of this explanation together was turning out to be as tricky as penning escaped shoats. By the time I’d collected these details, we’d reached the farm. Cob was breathing hard after walking along that hot road, and beads of sweat stood on his face as big as old pennies.
On the way back to the car, we rode in the cargo box of the farm truck. I still was puzzling over why Father looked like he’d seen the face of the devil. “Cob,” I tried again, “why was Father scared of the pigs?”
He squinted through the dust down the rapidly receding road. With a great effort, as if trying to fix a landmark right at his vision’s vanishing point, he began, “When your Pa was comin’ in from the field, he tells me to hitch a line ’round Rip’s leg and pull her out back with the tractor. An’ I said, ‘That be bad for the foal.’ ‘What foal?’ he wants to know. An’ I tell him, ‘Rip’s foal.’ He grabs me by the arm and runs me to the stable and he throws open the doors an’ as we come in we both hear somethin’. We looks an’ that poor dead horse, that old rottin’ carcass is breathin’! We both saw it. Now that was the first time your Pa ever set foot in that stable since before the shootin’, an’ he begins to think Rip never been shot at all. I’m thinkin’ maybe Ripple comes back to life. She was lyin’ in the shadows, but we both saw her belly quiverin’ and you Pa, he starts sayin’ real soft, ‘That’s got to be the foal! It’s got to be her foal. That horse’s not dead, not by a long shot!’ an’ such like–”
Suddenly I knew what happened that day had to have been something awful like this. My face felt hot all over, like the times I had run a high fever or had sunburn.
Cob kept right on talking. “Then he saw his pigs. They got into Rip, those pigs, and were eatin’ that horse’s innards, gruntin’ with pure delight. Rootin’ around inside of her like that made her ribs move. Like breathin’, you know. Then two of them come bustin’ out squealin’, pullin’ on her guts like birds on a worm.”
I knew they had gotten into Rip, because I hadn’t been feeding them regularly every day. “And so father sold the pigs . . . and buried the . . . remainders . . . under that load of dirt,” I couldn’t stop myself from finishing.
“Buried her?” Cob repeated innocently, as if surprised. But his mind had started going off and on, as I said, and now his voice wavered as he groped after some image vanishing off into the past or future. “Why no,” he finally began again, “she was ridden in apple blossom time with a golden bridle. She had her colt too.”
“That can’t be! Julius had– . . . the pigs had–. . . That’s why you tore the stable down, because it was filled with all that ugliness!”
“No, Ripple was livin’,” he protested, fumbling in his pocket. “She was pragtig mooi, a perfect mare with her colt, both of them. They ran in the fields beneath a pure blue sky. That was on a Sunday in apple blossom time, you know.”
Cob pulled from his pocket one last nail, shiny and perfectly straight. It caught the sunlight on its shaft. “Promised I’d ride her out soon to where it’s peaceful, beyond roads, sharp wire, and the varke. Got to build that stable big out yonder, she’d love that.”
We never made it to the Fort Beaufort show at all, because I threw up my lunch. And Julius had to drive us home in the borrowed bakkie. I lied and said it was because of a gas can in the box of the truck; it didn’t have a top, just a rag plugged in, so it smelled pretty dizzy. “Worse than a dead cow,” I told him.
About the Author:
Gerald Monsman is Professor and former Head of the Department at the University of Arizona, where he specializes in nineteenth-century British and Anglo-African literature. Previously as Professor at Duke University he had been a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow and, while part of the Duke program in creative writing, twice won the Blackwood Prize for Fiction from Blackwood’s Magazine (Edinburgh). To date he has published eight volumes of literary criticism, fifteen scholarly editions, one historical monograph, one critical biography, seven book chapters, and more than thirty critical articles, along with reference criticism, poetry and fiction, and reviews. His career has been heavily invested in recovering “lost” or neglected writers of major importance with book-length critical studies: Walter Pater, Charles Lamb, Olive Schreiner, H. Rider Haggard, Bertram Mitford, Ernest Glanville, and John Trevena (regarded as one of the finest novelists of his time who today has fallen into total neglect). Currently, based on new manuscripts, Monsman is reediting the last great novel of the English Decadence, Walter Pater’s *Gaston de Latour*, in connection with a complete scholarly edition of Pater’s works for Oxford University Press.